Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Former President Clinton's angry, finger-pointing attempt to defend and revise his abysmal pre-9/11 record on terrorism is coming under increasing scrutiny.

That's because he made a number of unsubstantiated claims last week during his theatrical temper-tantrum response to Fox News reporter Chris Wallace's questions about what Clinton did, or didn't do, to combat the terrorist threat in his eight years in office.

Stung by the harshly critical ABC network dramatization (which admittedly included some fictional scenes) of what led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States which blamed his administration for not going after Osama bin Laden when it had the chance, Clinton came to the Fox interview ready to rumble.

Perhaps no one else in modern American politics is better than Clinton at the counterattack, and he gave a boffo performance that met with rave reviews from his party's angry leftist road warriors in the blogosphere.

But it turns out the man who looked the American people straight in the eye and told them "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky" once again was playing fast and loose with the truth with his blame-shifting arguments. Here are two examples:

In the aftermath of the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, Clinton told Wallace, "I had battle plans drawn to go into Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban and launch a full-scale attack search for bin Laden. But we needed basing rights in Uzbekistan."

But there were no full-scale military plans in the works at that time to drive the Taliban terrorists out of their sanctuaries and training camps, as President Bush did later.

Here's what reporter Peter Baker of the Washington Post, no fan of the Bush administration, reported last week:

"The Sept. 11 commission, though, found no plans for an invasion of Afghanistan or for an operation to topple the Taliban, just more limited options such as plans for attacks with cruise missiles or Special Forces. And nothing in the panel's report indicated that a lack of basing rights in Uzbekistan prevented a military response."

One of the biggest whoppers Clinton threw at the Bush administration charged that it did not hold "a single meeting about bin Laden for the nine months after I left office."

Actually, one of the first actions Bush began as soon as he took office was to begin a full-scale review of the terrorist threat and to draw up plans for dealing with it. Vice President Dick Cheney was one of the key figures in this initiative and there were meetings at numerous levels, including the very highest level, on this very issue.

Here again, Baker shoots down Clinton's allegation:

"In fact, the Bush team held several meetings on terrorism through the interagency group known as the deputies committee and one on Sept. 4, 2001, through the principals committee composed of Cabinet officers."

It goes without saying that Clinton, then out of office, could not possibly know what kind of highly classified meetings were being held by the White House and defense-intelligence agencies. My own sources say Cheney, assigned by Bush to make this a high priority, was pressing this initiative at multiple leadership levels as they began a top-to-bottom review soon after Bush's inauguration at the end of January 2001.

Elsewhere in the interview, in a classic case of blame-shifting, Clinton said that he wanted to take military action against the Taliban and bin Laden, but he could not get the intelligence agencies to agree on a plan of action and sign off on what he wanted to do.

Is he saying that as America's commander in chief he could not execute the necessary orders to go after the terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan? That his hands were tied? That he wasn't fully in charge?

We do know that the military leadership in Clinton's administration was also opposed to taking action in Afghanistan at that time, including his own defense secretary. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Throughout the interview with Chris Wallace, a fair-minded journalist who was unfairly made the brunt of Clinton's personal attacks, the former president kept arguing that Bush did nothing on terrorism in the seven and a half months he was president.

The facts say otherwise, but now the question is, what did Clinton do in eight years to thwart the terrorists' ascendancy?

Of course, other motivations were driving Clinton's on-air tirade. He was obviously playing to the Democrats' political base in a calculated effort to energize his party in the final weeks of an election in which Bush has successfully elevated the war on terrorism as a strategic issue in the campaign.

With his own record on terrorism under assault, Clinton finds himself at the center of an election-year debate about which party will keep us safer. But despite his latest attempt at historical revisionism, the polls tell us that Bush and the GOP win this issue hands down.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.